Dispatch from Africa, cont'd
A draft mass email from my backpacking journey
Here it is folks, at long last, the eagerly-awaited dispatch #2. I’ve put this thing off for far too long. And the longer I put it off, the more I accumulate things to talk about, making me put it off even more, and I accumulate more things, and so on… Also, Western Europe isn’t nearly as exciting nor exotic as North Africa, so I fear this update will be much more boring. However, since Dispatch: Africa covered about 4 days and this one covers approximately 6 weeks, hopefully the sheer quantity of anecdotes will compensate for their quality. Onward!
I suppose I’ll start with the rest of Africa. I don’t have too much to add in terms of conveying the general feel of the place; the first email did a good job of that, but that doesn’t preclude sharing various interesting/funny things that I experienced in the rest of my days there. This does all seem so after the fact that it feels a little weird to be talking about it, but I’ll try my best.
I mentioned before that the moped traffic in Marrakech was so crazy that it seemed a miracle that I hadn’t gotten into an accident yet. Well, right after I sent my last email, I did get into an accident, of sorts. While walking back to the hotel, a moped passed me at high speed, and the handlebar snagged part of my bag, whipping it around my body and almost knocking me off my feet. Quite shaken, I checked myself over and noticed my camera missing (I keep the strap hanging out for easy access). Almost immediately, the rider approached me with very overt “I’m sorry”s and “are you OK”s, almost as if trying to distract me, while in the corner of my eye I see another guy start sprinting off. My first instinct is that I was just the victim of an exceedingly well-executed snatch-and-grab. Not really sure what to do, I just stood there stupidly for a few mintues when out of the gathering crowd emerged a guy holding my camera high up in the air. The moped had catapaulted it like twenty feet into some guy’s market stall! And the really amazing part is that it still worked (though certainly worse for wear). It has definitely been aged a few years though, as by this point I’m essentially hot-wiring the shutter mechanism to take pictures. I was looking for an excuse to get a new camera, anyway.
I got a shave from a Moroccan barber (Berber barber?). He didn’t do a very good job, though, as I got scraped up pretty badly. Guess they just aren’t used to baby-soft American skin. I did verify he used a fresh blade, though, so I didn’t get a free dose of HepB in the process.
Casablanca next. Not much to report. It was here that Ramadan was in full swing. I remarked last time that it would be interesting to see how the place changed. Well I can say now: Ramadan sucks! It makes it impossible to get a meal during the day, impossible to do much of anything at sundown, and in general makes the whole place slower, surlier, and more irritable. The whole country kind of goes into half-hibernation… very edgy hibernation. It was interesting to see it up close for a few days, but I was glad it was only a few before I was leaving. I wouldn’t recommend travelling in the midst of Ramadan for an extended period of time.
After casablanca was Fes. It was here that I had the unfortunate luck of arriving at sundown. I walked out of the bus station to find many deserted taxi cabs, followed moments later by hordes of people spilling out of the mosque and into said cabs, while they flashed me apologetic looks and made eating gestures with their hands. I eventually did find a cab willing to take me, but I had to pay a special ‘breaking the fast’ fare, and good god, did he drive like he had somewhere he wanted to be. Ridiculous speed, running red lights, I was clutching the side of the door for my life.
He dropped me off at the gate to the old city where I wandered into a hotel. All the rooms were full, but as an alternative they said I could sleep on the roof (futon mattress and blanket provided) for only 50 dirham a night! It was here I forgot that you haggle for everything in this country. The hotelkeeper didn’t want to break my large bill just then, so I paid when I left two days later. I didn’t mention the rate I was quoted, and my change revealed the real price to be 25/night.
Among the other roof-sleepers was this French performing troupe who were travelling all around Morocco, Mali, and Mauritania doing this song/dance/juggle routine. We hung out both nights over dinner and after-dinner hashish; they didn’t speak very good English so it made for some amusing conversation. At one point I was trying to explain what a muppet was. One of them finally got it and tried to explain to the others: “no ze peuppets, c’est meuppets!”. Repeat about fifteen times.
Fes might have the highest mosque-per-square-km density in the world. Now imagine at sunset when each mosque begins their call to prayer, each about five seconds out of sync from the next, all competing to be ‘Muezzin Idol’…
Fes as a city was very impressive – on par with Marrakech. It was much mellower (and I don’t think just because of Ramadan), but it was even more labarynthine. And whereas Marrakech is entirely flat, Fes is built in these steep valleys, and it literally adds another dimension to navigating the city. It feels much more like you’re venturing off into the unknown when your narrow windy street is going up- or downhill seemingly without end.
Beyond Fes was Chefchaouen, a very picturesque city nestled in the Rif (Rif… Rif…) mountains and painted entirely in light-blue. Up until now I had been using the reputable, state-run bus company, but from Fes I took one of the cheapies. It was a markedly different experience. I think I conveyed the chaos of Moroccan bus stations previously. Well now the chaos was on the bus as well, particularly while sitting on the bus waiting to leave… They just let anybody on these things! A constant parade of people walking up and down the aisle hawking sunglasses and all kinds of crap. Others who just step on and for seemingly no reason start making these impassioned speeches. I’m pretty sure they were asking for money, but they were not at all meek like the usual beggars; or maybe they were religious/political nuts. One guy stepped on with a boombox and started blasting his wonderful selection of music for sale. Sales seemed a little slow, so he just kept cranking the volume higher and higher… The guy next to me actually bought two CDs. The cover of one was this weird mosaic of the Kaaba and a guy with hair like that dude from House Party. On the other side, a burned CD-R, of course.
Chefchaouen was also very nice (starting to see a trend?), where I stayed in a beautiful hotel for only 40 dirham ($5), and the only notable event is that I bought a rug. The haggling was actually quite a fun experience and I think I held my own, but the thing that really gets me is you never get to find out how you did. These guys never cut the crap, even after you’ve handed them the money, transaction finished, they still act like you’re taking the food right out of their kid’s mouth. I really just want to say “come on now, really… how’d I do”, and they can reply “I still made a killing off you”.
At last came the day I would finally return to spain – Western civilization! Morocco had been amazing, but I was itching to get back. And getting back wasn’t exactly easy… this was my day:
- wake up
- walk to taxi stand in Chefchaouen
- take taxi to bus station
- take bus to Tetouan, wait one hour (thankfully avoiding a bus transfer)
- continue on bus to village of Fnideq
- take grand taxi to Morocco-Spain border (betcha didn’t know there’s a land border between Morocco and Spain)
- walk across border (with great difficulty)
- take Ceuta city bus to harborfront
- walk to ferry terminal
- take ferry across Strait of Gibraltar
- walk from ferry terminal into first hotel I see
Lots of my days seem to consist of these many-mode of transportation juggling acts. Thankfully I’m pretty good at them. On the bus to Tetouan I met a Swiss guy who was an exchange student at Columbine, during the shootings. He was pretty far from the action, down in a basement darkroom, when it happened. The first person I’ve ever met from Columbine, and it was a Swiss guy in Morocco.
The Spanish border was a rough and rowdy looking place, which I suppose is to be expected for one of the few land borders between europe and the third world. Lots of sketchy people milling about, lots of people trying their luck at getting across, tempers flaring, Moroccan border guards angrily tossing (hurling, really) people’s passports in disgust. I tried to tread lightly. It was not at all obvious where to proceed and even when I found the right place, not a exit-stamper to be found. Eventually I worked my way through. On the other side I didn’t even have to open my passport; “Americano! Pase pase pase!”
You may all be wondering why there’s a land border between Spain and Morocco at all. Well, turns out Spain has had two little cities on the African continent (Ceuta and Melilla) since the 1600s, and it refuses to give them up to Morocco. Kind of hypocritical when they make such a fuss about Britain refusing to give up Gibraltar (literally just across the strait). It’s the kind of geographical oddity that I love, but I saw hardly any of it because I really wanted to get on to mainland Europe. The ferry was a disappointment; you couldn’t go outside anywhere, the windows were very dirty, and it cost a whole lot more than I thought. I expected better for such a momentous experience as crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Even Gibraltar itself didn’t look that impressive, but that was only because I had it reversed in my head all these years. It looks really impressive from the North and East, not the South and West as I had always thought, and from whence the ferry approached. It was plenty impressive when I visited the next day.
I loved Gibraltar, and not just because I could communicate natively in english – a thought that didn’t even occur to me until I was walking towards the border. It’s such a quirky place. British phone booths, constables and RAF troops… just the whole fact that it’s a wee piece of Britain like an appendix on the bottom of Spain – you can’t help but giggle. The only place the Brits could squeeze an airport runway is straddling the entire access to the peninsula, so your first Gibraltar experience is walking across that runway. Immediately after I crossed, they dropped the gates and an airplane (BA, of course) took off. The rest of my day consisted of ascending “the rock”, atop which you take in gorgeous views and watch cavorting Barbary macaques (though the amusement of the apes is overshadowed by even more amusing signs everywhere warning of the dangers of monkey obesity and “adverse monkey/human interactions”), and then afterwards indulging in vaguely-American comfort food at insane British-tourist prices.
[Hit the wall here… scattered observations to follow]
Coimbra, Portugal– Aged Brazilian backpacker at the hostel. Wiry. Mullet. Tank top with Michaelangelo’s Hand of God, with his own face superimposed over Adam, and God handing him a motorcycle.
Porto, Portugal– Port winery (“portery”?) tastings. Tastes like liquid Jolly Ranchers. Experienced Francesinha.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain– First night I actually thought I might have to sleep on a park bench.
La Coruña, Spain– Site of my study abroad ten years ago. First time back. Creepy.
San Sebastián, Spain– Drank cider poured out of 20-ft diameter casks. Open the valve and a thin stream shoots across the room like a firehose. First encounter with the wifty creature known as Australian Backpacker Girl. Almost seems like they would forget they were still alive if you didn’t periodically remind them.
Bilbao, Spain– Don’t go to the Guggenheim while hungover. The lack of right angles and flat surfaces makes it a trial. Basque separatism is depressing; it’s time to move on.
Madrid– Gaggle of Argentinians very happy to point out all the double entendres in the local signage. Best tortilla ever. All Spanish cities starting to look the same…
Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog– Netherlands! Belgium! Netherlands! Belgium! Netherlands! Belgium! Netherlands! Belgium…
Brussels– Too many waffles. Too few sprouts.
Genk, Belgium– Sundials. Not as interesting as it would seem… the sun moves very slowly. Almost went to the wrong city.
Greenwich Observatory– Y U NO SYNCHRONIZE YOUR CLOCKS???
Munich– Dinner at a very traditional-seeming Bavarian eatery. Sounds like a private party in the back. Suddenly, drag queens.
Berlin → Copenhagen– Fell asleep on a train; woke up on a boat.
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